Friday, October 14, 2016

Modern Society's Reboot of Indentured Servitude - Part 1

Mayorgate has, over the years, focused on many serious and important issues dealing with law, legislation, environment, community, and much more. This article examines the most base human traits, which when identified and brought to the light leave little to be proud of. Yet there is no shortage of government officials who's actions are never questioned, businessmen who cut corners for profit at the expense of law and legislation, or greedy poachers butchering animals for demands based on superstition. In this article the stage is a supermarket – Sobeys to be exact – and what has played out leaves much to be questioned. Due to the volume of material present, a two-part format has been necessitated to do the situation justice. Unlike previous articles, voice recordings, documents, even names of witnesses have been left out due to legal requirements ahead.

Surviving in today's economy is not an easy thing, and Canada is not the land of milk and honey that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau likes to paint. An ever increasing portion of the workforce is becoming a part-time workforce. For employers this is something quite beneficial as they do not have to provide any of the costly benefits such as paid vacation or sick leave. Yet the workers who keep business moving are mainly left to the mercy of the employer.

Statistics Canada puts the number of part-time employees in Canada at 3,387,300 as of 2015. As a part-time employee, hours are cut by managers at will to reduce weekly operating costs. Staff are hired, even over-hired, so that there are too many people on the roster to be able to give an adequate number of hours to any one individual. The retail and hospitality industries are predominately staffed by part-time employees, and these industries are the backbone of any thriving economy.

I walked onto this playing field as a novice, never before having experienced life as a part-timer nor had I worked in a supermarket environment prior to this. The position I had taken was as an In-Store Chef at Sobeys; what lured me to this was a concept that Sobeys had which was unique and in many ways exciting. As the in-store chef my task was to present food and ideas to customers directly, not from corporate printed recipe cards or famous television personality cooks on weekly flyers. My station was located directly on the floor of the supermarket between three of the major departments: produce, meat and deli. Customer traffic was guaranteed although soon enough it did not matter whether an individual passed my station or went by another route; the aromas of cooking permeating the store brought people to the Chef's Station.

At the time that I had started, the store manager David Camilleri at Sobeys Scott Street in St. Catharines took a gamble and gave me full carte blanche as far as what I cooked. We had often spoken how statistics in Canada revealed that only two out of five households cooked full meals regularly on a weekly basis. I wanted to change that, at least in the small corner of the city I lived. On any given day, Sobeys customers would walk into the store welcomed by aromas of apple cider infused with fresh peach and pear bubbling on the portable cook top, Jamaican Jerk Chicken, Cuban Sandwiches or Moroccan Kefka Kebabs. It was a success and it only took a few months to make it so. At times I would hand out recipes to a couple of hundred people in a single day, prompting the opening of a food website,, so as to provide a better service to the customer base. I represented Sobeys, as Team Sobeys, in local chili cook-offs and school tours of youngsters, providing an opportunity to speak on the value of good nutritional choices without sacrificing great flavour for a healthy body. All with the continued support of store manager David Camilleri, who had surpassed my expectations and goals for the Chef's Station.

Shannon Munro, Community Care, & Alexander Davidoff, Team Sobeys, at The Annual St Catharines Chili Cook-off.

Although my success guaranteed that my hours were regular and high enough in volume, the longer I worked in this environment the more I came to realise it was the modern day reboot of indentured servitude. Few of the part-time staff were safe from hours being cut, the concept of over-hiring was ripe, and complaining could find repercussions. Sobeys as a corporation has this idea of Engagement; in theory not so bad, in practice something else. Representatives are chosen from each department to the Engagement Committee headed by an Engagement Champion. At Sobeys Scott Street the Engagement Champion was Lori Marsh. Overall the concept was simple, as a committee issues relating to morale, health and safety, staff concerns of any kind, and on the reverse, company concerns would be discussed. Lori Marsh would try and let all staff know that anyone could speak to her in confidence without fear of reprisal from management. I was a member of the committee as staff trusted me and would speak to me on many issues.

Things changed dramatically in June 2015. My chef's station was becoming more popular, drawing in regular customers. I had created a network of cross-selling with all departments in the store as a result of my recipes. By then I had represented the Sobeys brand name and specifically the Scott Street store in three chili cook-offs, outside any job description or expectation. I believed that I had proven the value of my work and the value of being a member of a team, the Sobeys' team.

Outside my work as a chef I have published this website for several years. My articles span the cobweb of society delving into environmental issues, conservation, politics and more. Store Manager David Camilleri was fully aware of my website and my community involvement commenting more that once how his wish was to bring his store closer to the community. All of this was completely separate to my work as a chef and completely removed from my position as a member of the Sobeys team. Yet whilst I was on duty at my place of work, at the Sobeys store, I became the target of harassment.

Workplace harassment is normally a very serious issue for any employer. The Ministry of Labour, through Bill 168, instructs that all employers formulate a separate harassment policy and post a copy in a position where all staff may have access to it. Sobeys Inc. has a “Violence and Harassment in the Workplace Prevention Policy,” and at the Scott Street store it is posted on a notice board leading to the staff room. One of the guidelines it describes as prohibited conduct is, “Using aggressive or hostile language, or engaging in conduct that would be offensive or intimidating to a reasonable person.” Further, under the heading Management Obligations it states, “Contact immediately either Human Resources, Health and Safety or Loss Prevention for confirmed breaches of this Policy and when appropriate contact the local Police agency.” Whether it is Bill 168, the Occupational Health and Safety Act, or Sobeys' own harassment policy, one point is clear: any reports of harassment are taken seriously and investigated immediately.

On June 20th 2015, as I was working at my chef's station, an individual came into the store. He stood some ten feet away from me holding a bag of cherries and simply stared at me with an angry look for some eight minutes without taking his eyes off me. He then moved to another position some ten feet away and continued to stare directly at me. I knew who the individual was as I had serious issues with him. Brian McMullan was the former mayor of St. Catharines and his intent on the day was clear. Whilst Brian McMullan played out his game of harassment he was witnessed by senior staff. One of the individuals who witnessed this bizarre incident said she felt so uncomfortable about it that she wanted to call the police.

In addition to witnesses there are security cameras placed throughout the store for obvious reasons. As my chef's station was situated at the junction of three departments, there were several cameras which would have my station in their line of sight. I reported this to the Store Manager as is required by both Ministry of Labour regulations and Sobeys' own policy. In addition to reporting the harassment I requested access to the security video as it would legally be my right, and that was when the insanity began.

On July 5th 2015 another equally bizarre incident occurred. Again whilst working at my chef's station, I was approached by an individual from the meat department. He told me that he saw a man standing at an angle behind me take what appeared to be photos of me with his cell phone. The individual from the meat department was the Assistant Department Manager, a man not known for any flights of fancy, so I took him very seriously. As he pointed out the fellow I approached him and asked if he took photos of me. I did not get any indignant response or denial, only a cold simple “nope.”

At that time I knew that I recognised his face but I could not put a name to that face. I then saw him walk around the deli counter and speak to the Assistant Store Manager Lynn Walbourne. Then he walked past the chef's station and without stopping said to me that he spoke to my store manager. He then walked two produce isles and then stood there, watching me for more than five minutes. I spoke with the Assistant Meat Manager who confirmed what he saw. Then I spoke to Lynn Walbourne who said that this person had stopped next to her, showed her the home screen on his cell phone and said that he did not take any photos of staff. Lynn Walbourne described him as “kinda creepy.” Later that evening I went through some files and put a name to the face, it was Christopher Bittle, a lawyer with Lancaster, Brooks & Welch – Brian McMullan's lawyer. The following day I brought a photo of him to show the Assistant Meat Manager and Lynn Walbourne who both confirmed it was the individual from the previous day.

Once again I reported this to Store Manager David Camilleri and once again I requested access to the security video. Camilleri said that he would review the video and talk to me then. Several weeks went by and no response on the issue came from Camilleri. Finally, towards the end of July, I was called into the Manager's office. I went up with my recorder on. In the office sitting at the monitor was Bakery Manager Shari Chastelet. David Camilleri said he was too busy so he asked Shari Chastelet to view the video, Chastelet turned to me and said she had no idea who she was looking for, she thought she was looking for a shoplifter, all of which I recorded. Camilleri then said that I would need a court order to get access to the security video. At no time was I given an opportunity to sit with Camilleri or Walbourne to view the video, as a victim of harassment I counted very little.

In late June 2015, I was approached by Assistant Store Manager Lynn Walbourne at my chef's station where she told me that there were two worrying transfer invoices which she and Camilleri wanted to talk to me about. I followed Lynn up to the office with my recorder on, by this time I knew I was not in what would be considered a 'safe' work environment. During the twenty or so minute meeting with Camilleri and Walbourne, my work habits, sample sizes, even types of recipes were pulled apart. It was apparent that two invoices totaling $3000 over two months were transferred to me from the Produce Department.

As the in-store chef I used product from all departments and provided a monthly accounting of all that I used directly to each department manager. Whatever product I used was then transferred to administration and that particular department would not have to write off the dollar value form their budgets as a loss, which would be referred to as Shrink. I told Camilleri that $3000 of produce in two months was an enormous amount, that it was impossible for me to use so much. Then I dropped my news on Camilleri: that I had all the originals of every invoice that I provided to each and every department manager. I had been a chef for too many years in a number of countries, I knew how to keep records and the need to keep those records for myself. Camilleri asked if I would give him copies which I naturally agreed to do. Upon leaving both Camilleri and Walbourne, both knew that they had fraud on their hands, and I fought hard to stop myself from saying it out loud.

It took about two weeks, I copied all the invoices for produce and tallied them at the current prices. Camilleri was given copies for nine months, not only two, and the total for the nine months was only a couple of dollars over $1000! Now it became crystal clear that the Produce Manager Angela Ciestak had committed fraud in order to reduce her shrink values. I was concerned about what was on my record, at that point Camilleri assured me that he would make sure nothing damaging would be on my record and that he would investigate the whole matter.

Several weeks went by with no comment from Camilleri. On August 15th 2015 I served David Camilleri with a Motion Record, regarding the security surveillance video as I was told by Camilleri I would have to do. The Motion Record is an official court document which was to request a judge to review all material supporting my request for the security video and provide an Order to Sobeys for the video to be turned over to me. Eight days later I was called into the manager's office by Assistant Manager Lynn Walbourne. As I came into the lunch room Walbourne asked me to come with her, she said nothing else. She opened the door to her office and with her hand on my back walked me in and shut the door behind me. Walbourne did not enter the office.

Sitting in a line were Kelly Turner, Human Resource Manager, Christine Argue from Loss Prevention, and Ian Birney from Human Resources. Turner said they were there to do an investigation into the harassment report by me. First of all the initial report was of an incident dating back to June 20th, secondly and most importantly Turner sat with her legs folded holding the Motion Record on her lap. I turned on my recorder, as did Turner, and I said that this was not a proper investigation, that it went beyond legal grounds as I had served the court documents.

Kelly Turner did not mention the documents served by me in any shape or form. I said openly that I did not wish to answer any questions and Kelly Turner, HR Manager, responded by saying, “I'll keep asking the questions even if you don't want to answer them.” The interrogation lasted roughly an hour. A short time after I returned to my chef's station, Assistant Store Manager Lynn Walbourne came up to me. She walked into the station area from behind, I turned on my recorder, then she began to open the cupboard doors. I asked what she was looking for as she continued to open the doors and look through everything. Walbourne said that she was looking for napkins as there was to be a “Food Fest” – that was a lie. That “Food Fest” was not scheduled for more than a week ahead. She continued to go through every cupboard and drawer systematically. Finally she opened the last drawer where I had my recipes and some personal papers. I told her that what she was doing was in breach of legislation, her response was “This is Sobeys' property, and I can do what I want.” The search was humiliating in font of all staff and my regular customers. I followed Walbourne when she left my station and asked why did she do that, that it was absolutely humiliating. Her response was “I am sorry Alex, they told me.” I asked who were the “they,” she refused to respond. Later, Lynn Walbourne's account of this situation intentionally omitted all of the facts of the search, and the fact that I was submitted to further searches every day for almost a week.